By JULIAN WISE
Story has been a constant theme in the life of Rosemary Stimola. From a childhood spent on the colorful streets of New York city through careers in academia and bookselling, literature has been a guiding presence. This lifelong love of books has culminated in her founding the Stimola Literary Studio, an agency specializing in quality children’s literature. Her agency’s profile has risen recently with the best-selling The Hunger Games trilogy, a futuristic series written by longtime client Suzanne Collins, currently being adapted to the big screen.
In person, Ms. Stimola blends sharp intellectual acumen with a pleasant, down-to-earth manner. She and her husband, fine art photographer Michael Stimola, divide the year between residences in West Tisbury and New Jersey.
“I feel more personal connection to this place and the people here than I do anywhere else.” she says. “There’s natural beauty, community and a grounding aspect about Island life that nourishes me on so many levels.”
Ms. Stimola, a Queens native, spent much of her childhood in Brooklyn, where her father ran a dry cleaning business. The richness of the city streets and the warm network of extended family contrasted with the strictures of her formal education, including a stint at a Catholic high school in Astoria, Queens, that she describes as “the four most miserable years of my life.” The dry, rote approach to learning chafed with her natural sense of curiosity about the world.
Salvation arrived at an early age when she was introduced to Olive Beaupre Miller’s My Book House, an illustrated anthology series that progressed from poems, fairly tales and nursery rhymes to Cervantes, Tolstoy and Twain. Other formative books in her youth included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, Gone with the Wind, 1984 and A Farewell to Arms.
“These schools didn’t encourage children to question, imagine or be creative,” she says, “but books provided these opportunities and the escape that saved my life.”
Ms. Stimola earned BA, MA and PhD degrees in linguistics and taught language and literature at a CUNY campus in the Bronx, where she specialized in children’s literature. She loved teaching but found academic politics and administration draining. At a 1983 reading conference in San Diego she ventured to Green Tiger Press, an independent children’s publisher. That visit, and a followup trip to The White Rabbit children’s bookstore, set a career change in motion.
“When I walked into The White Rabbit, I thought, ‘I want to do this. I can do this.’”
Ms. Stimola conducted two years of research into the bookselling business before opening A Child’s Story Bookstore in Teaneck, N.J., an award-winning business that achieved national acclaim for its author and event programming. Over the next decade she would hone her skills in purchasing, promotion, merchandising, and other aspects of the retail trade.
By the mid 1990s, superstores began to dominate the market, squeezing out the independent retailers.
“I’m one of those people who does not like a slow death,” she says. “When I saw the writing on the wall, I said, ‘Okay, this is done.’”
She reluctantly closed the store in 1995 and began searching for ways to stay involved with children’s literature.
“When I closed the store, it was a business decision I had to make, but it was a heartache,” she says. Her reputation brought her job offers from publishing houses and national chains, but she turned them all down. “I had been my own boss for too many years, and the constraints of corporate structures not my own just didn’t suit. Thankfully, I also had a husband who both encouraged and supported my professional needs.”
In the ensuing years she did everything and anything she could do to keep her connection to children’s books alive while earning a steady income. She taught a course in Children’s Literature at CUNY, freelanced as an editor and marketer for various publishers, and created Teacher/Discussion Guides for the popular Magic Treehouse and Junie B. Jones series. One day an Island friend observed that her intuitions and experience might serve her as a literary agent.
“I actually laughed and said, ‘Oh, no! I’ve met agents, and I don’t like most of them.’ ”
Her friend persisted, and Ms. Stimola began a two-year study of the ins and outs of the agenting business.
“There was a great deal familiar, but contracts were a whole new dimension. A PhD in linguistics came in handy as I worked through the dense legalese of contractual language,” she says.
Since founding the Stimola Literary Studio in 1997, Ms. Stimola has developed a professional style that combines business savvy with kitchen table wisdom. She has established close relationships with fellow agents and publishing professionals while fostering a select but diverse clientele of writers. In a bruising industry, she is the rare professional who can mediate the technical side of publishing while remaining sensitive to her writers’ needs.
“Writers all have their personalities, their neuroses, their idiosyncratic approaches to creating,” she says. “You have to figure out who each one of them is and give them what they need, which may be very different from what another requires.
“When I was growing up people would say I was a scrapper and an old soul. I never really knew what that meant. I don’t know that I had any great wisdom, but I am pleasantly persistent, and have always had an ability to seek balance and look for the win/win outcome. Sometimes [husband] Michael overhears me on the phone and when I hang up he says, ‘Rosemary, they don’t pay you enough!’ It makes me laugh because, despite author meltdowns, poor color proofs and market frustrations, I quite enjoy my work and my relationship with each of my clients, personally and professionally. I am very lucky to be able to do what I do.”
Part of her work with authors is helping them understand the vagaries of the publishing world.
“Publishing is not a science like chemistry where you can put in certain elements and be assured a particular outcome. And yet, it is this very lack of predictability that is also the most exciting thing about this field; you never know what a book is going to do.
“Some books that have a lot of marketing behind them never quite ring the bell, whereas another book that has gotten very little publicity somehow rises to the top and breaks out. Why did that happen? I can tell you, if I knew exactly why, I would make it happen every time! But whether hardcopy, e-book or app, I need to make sure authors are given the best possible shot, and are duly compensated for their work, now and in the future.”
Her studio has accepted few new clients recently, but Ms. Stimola says there is always room for that author and story that stands out. The search for new authors requires a blend of methodology and instinct.
“As I review queries, I first need to see a well-conceived concept, one that feels fresh in content, style or perspective, and that’s not an easy thing these days,” she says.
“If the concept intrigues and the query letter has been well-constructed, my assistant or I will request a manuscript. Here’s where great concepts can fall flat on their faces depending on the execution. Strong character, voice, pacing — these are things you can determine pretty quickly. Years back when Suzanne Collins came to me with Gregor the Overlander, the first book in what became The Underland Chronicles, I knew from the first paragraph that she was gifted. I do believe that writing is a gift. You can hone it, you can make it better, but like any other art, there are those of us who are born with gifts.”
These gifts are amply demonstrated in recent titles Ms. Stimola helped shepherd to the marketplace. There is Sparrow Road by Sheila O’Connor, the story of a young girl forced to spend a summer at an eccentric artist colony where her mother works as a cook.
“When I read the first draft, the language had a lyrical quality, a music to it that tugged at my heartstrings. It had characters I wanted to wrap up in a package and take home with me,” she says.
Buzz has been building steadily for the Hunger Games film. Described as the most highly anticipated film of the year by Entertainment Weekly, it is scheduled for a March 2012 release. Directed by Garry Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) the cast includes Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks.
Ms. Stimola acknowledges the challenge in adapting rich, imaginative tales from the page to the screen while staying true to the author’s original vision.
“With films, it’s a delicate balancing act. We’ve all seen wonderful books turn into awful films, so it’s important to put together the right team, insuring the author, film agent, producer, studio, screenwriter and director are all on the same page.”
The Web site for Ms. Stimola’s agency, stimolaliterarystudio.com, is filled with past, present and future releases by her talented roster of writers who are shaping the literary experiences of the next generation of readers. Yet while Ms. Stimola is helping bring new stories to the marketplace, she is witnessing her grown daughters, Aubrey and Adriana, complete the circle by introducing new titles to her.
“I have raised readers, and now they are truly birds of their own that have taken flight with their own interests. Now they come back to me and say, ‘Mom, have you seen this book? You have to read this.’ For years, I was the one feeding them, and now as readers they are feeding me.”
While Ms. Stimola’s career requires dividing her time between the Island and New Jersey and includes international forays to the International Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, Italy, Martha’s Vineyard remains her touchstone.
“I was speaking to an agent colleague who asked me about my mainland life and my Island life. I told her that when I am in New York and New Jersey, I live where I work. When I am on the Vineyard, I work where I live. I am so blessed that this Island provides a setting in my life narrative, as there is no place on earth I am more at home.”